Otay Water District's Ambitious Plan to Bring in Desalinated Water from Mexico

Even as California residents debate whether we are free from the drought, local water agencies are looking for ways to increase their water supply.

The Otay Water District is working on a project that would involve desalinated water from a new plant being built in Rosarito, Mexico.

The district wants to build a 3.5 mile pipeline from the U.S-Mexico border to its 36.7 million gallon reservoir in Otay Mesa. The pipeline would transport some of that desalinated water to customers in Spring Valley, La Presa, Rancho San Diego, Jamul and eastern Chula Vista.

The district's plan is outlined here.

Right now, all of the drinking water in the Otay Water District is purchased through the San Diego County Water Authority.

If approved, the cross-border pipeline project would be first of its kind in San Diego County.

"If we can bring desalinated water across, that gives us a very reliable supply," said Mark Watton, general manager for the Otay Mesa Water District. "And we're looking to do that at a price that's comparable to the water that we're purchasing today."

The San Diego County Water Authority confirmed Thursday that drought conditions no longer exist within the county. NBC 7’s Steven Luke has more on what that means going forward.

The pipeline to Otay Mesa is projected to cost about $30 million. The price tag includes a disinfection system, a monitoring station, a pump station and other components.

The expense would be later included in customers' water bills, as part of expenses for the district's capital improvement program.

Before construction can begin, the Otay Water District must get two permits: a Presidential Permit from the U.S. Department of State, and a permit from the California Division of Drinking Water.

The Presidential Permit would allow the pipeline to cross the international border.

The district expects to hear if the Presidential Permit is granted, within the next few weeks.

A permit from the California Division of Drinking Water would allow the Otay Water District to put the desalinated water into its water supply.

The state is expected to make a decision on whether to approve the project, within the next year.

"The California Department of Drinking Water certified the water from the desal plant in Carlsbad," said Watton. "They're going to use the exact same criteria for this water coming across the border. No shortcuts. It has to meet every state of California standard."

In the process of qualifying for the Presidential Permit, the Otay Water District held public hearings and went through environmental reviews.

"In Mexico there was public hearings, all the stuff we have here. Nobody showed up," said Watton. "We had all the same public hearings on our project here, the presidential permit, the environmental on the pipeline. We had some comments. I don't think anybody showed up."

Some local environmentalists expressed concern that raw sewage could get into the water being used for the desalination plant.

Watton says the sewer flows in the Imperial Beach area isn't related to the desalination plant.

"The desal plant takes ocean water which is 9 miles away from the discharge that they're worried about," said Watton. "The process of the desal in and of itself is very selective, just like the pure water in the City of San Diego. It's the same process."

Two San Diego environmental groups have expressed concern about the pipeline project.

“Unless the State of Baja California cleans up the more than 50 million gallons a day of raw sewage discharged into the surf zone around the proposed desal project, San Diego County residents should not be guinea pigs for the first-ever potable water reuse project in Mexican history,” WILDCOAST Conservation Director Zachary Plopper said in a written statement.

Plopper said the project would never be allowed to be built in California if a similar volume of sewage were being discharged in the ocean around it.

Watton said the sewage problem is completely separate from Otay Water District’s Conveyance and Disinfection System project. He added, there will be checks to make sure the water meets California standards.

“This new water supply, just as any other potable source including surface water from lakes, rivers, the Carlsbad Desalination Plant, and various Pure Water Programs, will need to meet the same high-quality standards required by the California State Water Resources Control Board Division of Drinking Water,” Watton said. “We stand strongly in our mission to distribute high-quality potable water to all of our customers.”

According to San Diego County Policy Manager Julia Chunn-Heer, the Surfrider organization is also critical of the project.

Chunn-Heer said that the project should have to meet U.S. environmental laws.

“Basically water agencies should not be able to skirt our regulations by heading south of the border with projects designed for our benefit,” she said.

She went on to say the process of desalination produces significant green house gases.

Watton said environmental impact studies are being prepared for local, state and federal regulatory agencies in Mexico.

“Unfortunately, certain U.S.-based groups do not appreciate, do not understand or mischaracterize Mexican environmental regulations, which regulate and address issues in many ways that are similar to the U.S. process,” he said.

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If both the state and federal permits clear, construction on the pipeline from the border to the Otay Water District's reservoir could begin in three years.

"Once we get the two critical permits, then we have negotiations. We need to make sure the water is of a price and quality that work," said Watton. "And after all that is done, we can actually commence construction."

If that happens, the desalinated water from Rosarito could go into the Otay water supply in about six years.

Watton says the goal is to be 60 percent dependent on the San Diego County Water Authority for its drinking water supply, instead of 100 percent.

The Otay Water District serves about 222,000 customers.

NBC 7’s Katia-Lopez Hodoyan spoke with an avocado farmer in Escondido who says that his monthly water bill would exceed $6,000 if he were to only use city water.
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